(R) 4 stars

The Cooler is a little movie sporting some big treats. Though the noirish film has a high concept — a walking jinx whose very presence ruins the lucky streaks of others is employed by a Las Vegas casino to spread his bad vibes to big winners — it remains firmly focused on the characters.

For William H. Macy, the great hangdog actor beloved for his work in everything from Fargo to Door to Door, the movie offers him the chance to finally be the leading man with all the trimmings, including a great romance and a steamy sex scene.

 -Ron Livingston and Alec Baldwin in ‘The Cooler’-  Alec Baldwin contributes a powerful supporting performance as a hulking old school casino operator who somehow carries a measure of charisma despite his penchant for extreme violence. Meanwhile, Maria Bello, playing a struggling cocktail waitress, establishes herself as a performer whose acting chops are as impressive as her looks.

Filmmaker Wayne Kramer, aided immeasurably by Mark Isham’s smoky score, does fine work recreating the seedy, vulgar, yet somehow still appealing atmosphere of an aging casino. His storytelling still needs work — some of the shifts in tone are needlessly abrupt and the violence is more jarring than it needs to be — but he is clearly gifted.

The screenplay, co-written by Frank Hannah and Kramer, introduces Bernie Lootz (Macy), a man who might as well have the term “sad sack” painted on his face. Poor Bernie; his marriage fell apart, he is estranged from his son and his cat is missing. He used to gamble, racking up debts all over town, including the Shangri-La, a casino on a side street in the unfashionable part of town. Casino boss Shelly Kaplow (Baldwin) came to his friend’s financial aide, but he also established his dominance with a crack on the knee that left Bernie with a permanent limp. For years, Bernie has struggled to repay the loan, working the floor of the Shangri-La, sidling up to hot rollers at Shelly’s command and ending their hot streaks by standing nearby and being himself.

Just days before finally paying off Shelly and leaving Las Vegas, Bernie meets Natalie (Maria Bello), a new cocktail waitress at the casino. Somehow — amazingly — the lovely woman takes a fancy to him and before you know it, they tear up the sheets together, leaving Bernie stunned but delighted, and head over heels in love. Uh-oh.

The pending loss of his cooler isn’t Shelly’s only problem. The casino owners have sent in Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), a forward-thinking corporate man ready to pull the Shangri-La into the 21st century. In addition to installing a roller coaster, his plans include ditching the 60-something lounge singer (Paul Sorvino) and replacing him with a more demographically desirable young property named Johnny Capella (Joey Fatone). Bernie gets a new headache as well when his wayward son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) pops up penniless with his pregnant girlfriend Charlene (Estella Warren) in tow.

The story is dramatic, romantic, often funny, sometimes sweet as coconut milk, and occasionally flat out brutal. Though some of the transitions are less than smooth, the shifts in tone are part of the appeal of The Cooler.

And my, oh my, what a fine cast. At the midway point in the awards season (with the Academy Awards moved up, it runs from early December to the end of February this year), Alec Baldwin has received a tremendous amount of praise for his take on the role. Understandable. As the years go by and his middle thickens, Baldwin has made a successful move from leading man to character actor. As a vicious warrior desperately trying to keep his castle from being turned into an amusement park, he is scary, sad and mesmerizing.

Maria Bello has also been widely lauded for her turn as the cocktail waitress who finds herself with an unexpected suitor, and she deserves it as well. Hers is the sketchiest role, but she adroitly fills in all the emotional blanks.

But what about William H. Macy, who has made the jump from supporting player to big-screen leading man? Amazingly, most of the numerous award givers have passed him by. Could it be that, after building up such an extraordinary body of work, he has given so many letter-perfect performances that he is now being taken for granted? Not by me and, hopefully, not by you.

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